Saturday 11 May 2024

"Nature, the Environment and Sustainability" Competition: Winning Entries 5

Over five days, we're delighted to be publishing the winning entries from the short story competition, "Nature, the Environment and Sustainability," which ran in 2023-4. The competition, commissioned by the University of Leicester’s Centre for New Writing and Centre for Environmental Health and Sustainability, was judged by the celebrated nature writer, Mark Cocker, and showcased at this year’s Literary Leicester free literature festival.

You can see the results here. There were two winners, one specially commended entry, and two runners-up. Each day, we've been publishing one of these winning entries. Today, you can read one the two winning stories, "Flood" by Sophie Sparham. 

Sophie Sparham is a writer from Derby. She has written commissions for BBC Radio 4, The V&A and The People’s History Museum. Sophie co-hosts the poetry night "Word Wise" which won Best Spoken Word Night at the 2019 Saboteur Awards.


It came and went as Kingfishers always do, a vibrant flash of blue, gone in an instant. I was at work when I got the call: drive my car through young torrents and leave it at the top of the valley. There, at the dulling edge of twilight, I parked by a pub, trudged down fields thick with new mud, cow and sheep shit. The fields below were gone, in their place a sky had been cut into the landscape, wavering in the breeze. Eons of deep blue stretching beyond the borders of the farms. The track leading to the house had disappeared, in its place, a river. I lowered myself in, the water climbing my jeans, veins of wanting. Blue on blue, backwards waterfall, weighing down my clothes. My legged pressed against the current; a different kind of gravity, a moving landscape, dragging at my sides.  

It arrived uninvited, lapping against the front door as we sat in the cool of the dining room, the air thick with laughter and the steam of freshly cooked stew. The paint, eroding slowly like a cliff edge, flaked from the walls, as we served pumpkins and sweet chestnuts, all grown and foraged from our land. No one mentioned the dirt under our nails, the ache in our backs from lugging thick sandbags across gravel. No one cried out about faith or science. The sheep had been herded to high ground, the motorbikes ridden in wellies to a place where the land-locked tide could not touch them. The cooker, fridge and sofa balanced on industrial bricks, black as coal. And we sat and drank tea and waited. 

I thought of my childhood home, my father brushing away the water that dared approach our house. The way my parents removed the swallow’s nest from above their door and poisoned the mice that had the nerve to enter the garage. They taught me nature was something to be pushed away, something other. But here, I’d learnt to live with the seasons. To let go of winter’s leaves, to study patterns of frost and fell trees into fire. Here, I let the evergreen needles fall and witnessed the arrivals of catkins, ash keys and buds. Here, I listened for the call of the chiffchaff in April, the cry of the buzzard, the croak of the raven. I walked in bluebells and wildflowers and the precise silence only beech woods can hold. I welcomed the family of bees who moved into the slates of my roof, to let them live. Each night, I’d hear them beating their wings in unison, metres away from my head. I used to fear bees, but night after night, I'd listen eagerly, amazed until they hummed me to sleep. Why should the flood be any different? Like autumn in all its golds, this too is a miracle. The way water can reclaim a landscape in liquid pause. The way it holds us still.    

We left the dishes in the sink and ventured outside to stand in the garden. The grass danced differently underwater, the strands bending in slow motion beneath the light of headtorches. The green reminded me of spring, when everything felt new born. The neon leaves of woodlands, the way their colour yelled at bark and soil. Owls screeched as we smoked fags down to the filter and discussed where constellations might be behind maps of obscuring cloud. There was a calmness, listening to the rain against the corrugated roof while the rising tide baptised our floor. Some of us stayed awake, as water climbed gurling up their drains, meeting it with rags and mops. You and I slept, tangled like pond weed, dreamt of oceans, the deluge kissing the kitchen tiles below. 

The following day, you penned a mark on the wall, added a date to the height. I remarked at how much it had grown; each year a few inches taller. My friend left the same marks on her kitchen wall to measure her growing toddler. Each time I visited the house, he would show me his progress and smile. Years ago, it had reached the first floor. I wondered if anyone was else was thinking about this as we paddled through the vegetable patch and watched plant pots float into the distance. Waders called to one another. I could see them, two swans and a great egret, in the field beyond the drystone wall. Curious bullocks tried to approach their new neighbours, as a kingfisher dived for newly displaced fish. When I sat inside, and stared out beyond the large glass window, it made me feel like I was on a boat, journeying downstream. Part of me wanted to stay, to live in a world dictated by new streams and seas. To walk sky after sky, flying as the fish did between countries redrawn. 

By lunch, it was gone from the buildings, leaving only silt and patterns of dirt behind. We emptied the house to its slick bones, blasted music from tinny speakers and bathed it like a child; slowly, tender, in warm, soapy water. I watched the bubbles wash over my skin, the colour slowly changing to beige then chocolate and finally deep brown. When my bucket was more dirt than water, I threw it into the undergrowth, watched by an onlooking robin, then returned to the shower, which I'd been using as my filling station. The water severed us from the world, and would do for a few more days. I didn’t mind. I soon forgot about my phone, the emails I had to write. Now there was only me and this sponge, thoughts unbroken by tomorrow. I cleaned each drawer separately, christened the living room table, praised the bags of oats and lentils. I mopped the floor three times, removing layer upon layer of river, peeling back the months of dirt that the passage of life had created. 

I knew a poet who was scared of the countryside. He told me everything here was so uncertain, that there were too many things that could go wrong. He said that I lived in Mary Oliver country. To me, the city is far more unpredictable, its rhythms of chaos and charge, its edges so sure of themselves.

My friends often ask why I live where I live. We know the waters will come again; that the river will leave the implied safety of its banks and dance with the dirt. They talk about it as though it’s the cause of the problem. As though we haven’t pulled up the trees, or created miles upon miles of agricultural landscape. Rivers are migratory creatures; it’s us who pretend we have tamed them into stillness, who have sculpted the world to our needs and expected no consequences. 

There are days when we go out onto the field with coffee and sit beneath the collapsing canopy in the dew. You point out the sparrowhawk as the mist rises. The hay bales we bought for summer are sprouting now, green shoots bursting through mustard yellow. Once, on one of our circular navigations around the field, we saw a pile of bright colours in the distance. I cursed beneath my breath, thinking of the teenagers with the tiny motorcross bike the night before; the way they had marveled at my Royal Enfield. They’d asked me if was ok to stay on our land and I had told them yes, shooing away the police. Now I felt my judgement to be misguided, looking at the mess that had been left behind, the remains of a party which I hadn’t been part of. As we approached the mound, I saw the bright white of a PVA bottle, the red and yellow Kodak logo, brown glass stripped of its label, a wide hole in the grass. This had nothing to do with wayward youth; it was the start of a new badger set, burrowed into the landfill that hides beneath these fields. The only reason we were able to buy this land was due to its toxicity, the abandoned relics, untarnished by time. It amazes me how quickly it can all change. In the summer, this field is a flurry of butterflies, crickets and bees. Now, the trees are golden and circles of mushrooms glisten in circles below boots. I like to stand beneath the copper beech and try and catch the falling bronze, stare at the canoe full of rain water and know that we didn’t have to use it. Not this time. 

Sometimes, on calmer days, it is our turn to visit the river. We take off our clothes, jump into freezing currents and scream as feet brush against fallen trees claimed by the rushing gloom. When the sky was cloudless, we blew up the blue mattress and paddled downstream with oars. You told me you couldn’t swim, that you were scared of fish, and I laughed at how ridiculous it all was. It’s hard to explain this world. The joy it brings.  

My friends tell me the water is coming and all I can say is, thank god, thank god.

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